Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Libellous Fiction

You may have heard how a Georgia jury found the author of The Red Hat Club, a novel, libeled her former friend by basing a character in the book on her - going so far as to even identify her actual neighbors - and adding that she was a right-wing, atheist, sexually promiscuous alcoholic.

Not a combination of adjectives you see every day.

Unsurprisingly, the victim was upset. Surprisingly, she won and was awarded $100,000 in damages.

This is surprising because normally in the US works of fiction enjoy great latitude - publishers are protected by the plausible deniability of having published the work "in good faith," plus there's that little disclaimer at the beginning of each novel where it specifically says it's a work of fiction and not to be construed as fact.

One news article pointed out that many famous writers based their characters on people they knew. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

That doesn't mean they got away with it.

In 1911 Britain, a "little-known actor" sued an author whose story was appearing in installments in a weekly paper. He felt one of her characters, an actor, was libelling him. She protested that the character was "purely fictitious."

He won and was awarded $1,000 in damages. (over $23,000 now)

The author decided "as a protest against and in ridicule of the English libel laws, under which it has become dangerous for an author or publisher to use the commonest names in fiction, lest persons bearing similar cognomens should take legal proceedings" to release her novel with all the names changed to famous people's. (After asking their permission, of course.)

G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown mysteries (among many other things), thus became the name of the book's "fiery-tempered lover."

In fact, Chesterton responded to her appeal with, "You can rely on me to bring no libel action. You may depict me as a burglar, or as a man who steals pennies from the blind, or a beggar, or even as a politician."

Very cool dude.

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